At Trust Mart, a large supermarket in Guangzhou, shoppers are sauntering in front of the cooking oil shelves carefully checking out products that feature mainly soybean oil, corn oil and peanut oil.
Li Wen, a local resident, said if possible, she wants to choose an oil product that contains no genetically modified content.
"There is really no final judge on the genetically modified food safety," Li says. "I'm a little cautious on health issues like this."
But Li is already a transgenic oil user.
"The cooking oil used in my home is made from transgenic materials, and I just discovered it two weeks ago. My mother also uses such oil at her home," Li said.
It's her husband, not her, who does more cooking at home and the oil is a year-end gift from her husband's work unit.
"It's OK, but I mean, if I can choose..." Li said, representing consumers who know the transgenic foods debate and have read up on the issue.
But the options left for Li are few since most Chinese producers of cooking oil are already using genetically-modified soybeans and corn as raw materials.
Arawana's cooking oil, Lu Hua's peanut blend oil, Kitchen King's cooking oil and the rape seed oil of other major brands, all declare on their labels that modified organisms are being used.
The country is the largest soybean importer in the world, with a large proportion arriving from the United States.
Last year, China imported 8.29 million tons of soybeans, worth US$2.21 billion, while in the January-May period, some 6.26 million tons of US soybean worth US$2.25 billion were imported.
The United States is by far the largest soybean exporter in the world, and about 70 percent of the imported soybeans are from transgenic crops and are used in manufacturing cooking oils in China.
The State food administration authority introduced a compulsory labeling requirement for all its edible oil products made with modified soybeans or corn on May 1.
"To be frank, the labeling does no good for our sales," a salesperson surnamed Huang in Trust Mart told China Daily.
She said consumers who noticed the label often show critical attitudes towards such products.
But the term "special offer" is generally the most important factor in deciding consumer preference, she said.
"Not many people care about a label if something's got a better price," she explained.
There is no labeling requirement on non-oil products in China so far, though intensive research on large varieties of food is being carried out.
Debates have accompanied research and commercialization of modified crops throughout the world. In recent years, with the rapid spread of such products here, dissent has come to China. Even though there has been no large-scale opposition, more consumers are suspicious of the foodstuffs.
According to a survey carried out by Guangzhou Municipal Statistics Bureau earlier this year, among 7,000 respondents, only 13 percent said they know something about transgenic foods.
The rest, said they knew nothing, and expressed their concerns on the issue.
"Two categories can be sorted out on the focus of the debate in the world. One is the ideology, the other is trade," said Li Baojian, a senior researcher with Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-sen University.
Some people take unnatural food as an act of defying the God. Under that belief, people feel eating transgenic food is sacreligious.
Others say that biotechnology involves only one real risk - tampering with the environment.
Mei Mantong, a biologist with the Guangzhou-based University of Agriculture, told China Daily that concern over the environment is the only pure debate.
"The impact on the environment is a long-term issue, which is hard to judge now," said Mei. Genetically engineered food is substantially equivalent to conventional-bred food, Mei quoted a scientific journal as saying.
Li pointed out modified plants even benefit the environment in some cases.
So-called Bt corn and cotton and round-up ready soybeans need only one sixth of the chemical inputs of regular plants, which greatly reduce pollution to rivers.
All chemicals used to kill pests eventually converge in water sources, he said.
It helps lighten farmers' monetary outlays for chemicals and lightens environment pollution, Li said.
Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) has a pest-tolerance trait, while round-up ready contains some herbicide-tolerance genes, helping plants to have better characteristics than conventionally bred crops.
China commercialized the Bt cotton over 10 years ago.
Concerns over side effects of modified crops to human offspring were denied by Li.
"Dozens of lab tests show they are irrelevant to human sex cells, which are the carriers of genes to the next generation," Li said.
The Chinese Government plans to provide 400 million yuan (US$48 million) to agricultural technology in the next three years, the Ministry of Science and Technology said at the end of May.
Investors from home and abroad are welcomed to become involved.
The recent establishment of the China Food Security Research Center, absorbing eminent biotechnologists from home and overseas is the best indicator of China's stance on the biotechnology development strategy.
Li Qing, business director with China Biotechnology Development Center, told China Daily current policy regarding the technology is to "greatly enhance basic research, go ahead steadily and surely on the commercialization of the industry."
(China Daily August 12, 2004)